If you will be in the NYC area on Monday, November 10, please come to the launch party for the new literary magazine Ozone Park at Queens College. I will read, along with several terrific contributors.
FINAL (I HOPE) POST ON VOTER'S BLOCK
Everyone I know is on edge. A friend suggested that I offer workshops on managing election stress, then reversed herself: "Never mind--you wouldn't be able to tear us away from our computers." Last week a dear friend walked out of one of my readings because the Q&A turned political, and he took offense at what he perceived to be classist attacks on one of the candidates. Clients and friends report nightmares, insomnia, and inability to focus.
I had started to write on a different topic, one I usually find compelling and important, but I can't stay engaged with it. I don't imagine that you would be interested this week, either, no matter how brilliant and incisive I managed to make my post.
So I'm going to spare us all empty effort, and concentrate instead on a concept germane to both writers and political figures, which one of our nation's leading political philosophers (I'm not actually joking) introduced in 2005:
"I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight's word: 'truthiness.' Now I'm sure some of the 'word police,' the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's are gonna say, 'hey, that's not a word.' Well, anyone who knows me knows I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
"I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and U.S. Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.
"Consider Harriet Miers. If you 'think' about it, of course her nomination's absurd. But the president didn't say he 'thought' about his selection. He said this:
- (video clip of President Bush:) 'I know her heart.'
Notice how he said nothing about her brain? He didn't have to. He feels the truth about Harriet Miers.
"And what about Iraq? If you think about it, maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn't taking Saddam out feel like the right thing?"
The real conflict, I think, is not between intuitive understanding and hard facts. As writers, we are aware of the deeper truths that often underlie, and at times belie, the visible facts; and as horrified observers, many of us have repeatedly known in our guts over the past eight years that we were being sold a bill of goods, long before all the facts about a given situation were on the table.
The problem with both facts and feeling arises when we stop there--when we latch onto a tabloid story which may be factually accurate but which presents a superficial, simplistic depiction of a position or situation as the whole picture; or when we rely solely on our initial emotional response without questioning the contribution of our own history or preconceptions to our feelings.
In writing a story, it's not enough to say, "Mary was a nice person." Why should the reader take our word for it? We don't have to present charts and graphs proving the integrity of Mary's character, but we need to show Mary's actions and responses; to shine a light that will show her clearly. And if we do so honestly and in depth, we may discover facets of Mary's character that aren't so nice after all, and these become part of the story, too. As readers, we know that if a character is introduced as a hideous hunchback or a humble friend, chances are we are being set up to experience stunning inner beauty or hate-driven ambition--because the surface, the headline, the immediate response, are only the beginning of the story.
When clients describe their experience or feelings in glib generalities, I usually ask them to "unpack" the terms they use; to be more specific and personal in their speech. When they try, the result is often the communication of deep reserves of fear or pain that they were trying to avoid by glossing over it.
Glossing over the fear and pain is sometimes necessary, in business and social situations, to achieve a larger objective. For an artist, the truth is the larger objective. Politicans play by different rules--but voters can't afford to simply go along with the game.
Whatever the outcome of this election (and I know, I can stop right there, because one outcome is unthinkable--but it has been thought, and it is being thought, and it could still eventuate--and we will have to deal with it), I hope we will all slow down, take a deep breath (or a strong drink) and resume our quest for the truths that are deeper and realer than either facts or emotions. Truth-tellers are needed now, more than ever.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. Her book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007) is now available in bookstores. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.